Toward the end of “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag,” Kai (Evan Peters) confesses to Winter (Billie Lourd) that while he's gotten far on charisma and fear, his cult can't go any further without a deeper philosophy. The emptiness of Kai's accomplishments, the need for something more, serves to self-define American Horror Story: Cult itself. The show's greatest successes have come from its performances and the real-world traumas from which it's blatantly taken inspiration. But the strength of the standalone flashback that occupies much of this episode—the rise and fall of Valerie Solanas (Lena Dunham)—speaks to the weakness of the overall season.
American Horror Story: Cult (#1–10 of 7)
Almost everything in “Mid-Western Assassin,” including the scenes from the mass shooting that bookend the latest episode of American Horror Story: Cult, plays a bit too much like a thesis presentation. Todd Kubrak's screenplay carefully explains every motivation, and Bradley Buecker's direction dutifully offers up the visual corroboration. Worse, that thesis is fraudulent, the result of cherry-picking data—that is, careful editing—so as to mislead viewers.
It takes less than 30 seconds for “Holes,” the latest episode of American Horror Story: Cult, to reference its title. WBNR’s Bob Thompson (Dermot Mulroney) might be a pervert, but he’s not wrong to ream out Beverly Hope (Adina Porter) for her recent on-air editorializing and fear-mongering: “There’s all sorts of goddamn holes in your stories!” And throughout the episode, Crystal Liu’s screenplay goes about addressing the holes that Cult itself created with the revelations from the flashback-filled “11/9,” but the answers here aren’t only unsatisfyingly blunt, but only raise more questions, to the point that the show’s narrative up to this point has been retconned.
The secret ballot that we use to cast our votes on election day is a rare opportunity for us to express our political views without risk of public opprobrium. “11/9,” the strongest episode yet of American Horror Story: Cult, taps into the power of the voting booth to allow us such a freedom, drawing back the curtain not just on the political choices of the show’s central characters, but on their innermost thoughts. In the process of an extended flashback, “11/9” also peels back the masks of the season’s antagonistic clowns, providing these menacing murderers with rich backstories: It turns out that they’re not just manifestations of our fears in the wake of Trump’s election, but victims of a system that the president simply inherited.
As a society, we’ve come to rely on rules to protect us and rights to give us a sense of power. If there’s a disturbance coming from the home next to our own, we know that there are authorities who we can alert. And if our government takes an action that we find undesirable, we can petition against it. Perhaps the biggest psychic trauma, then, experienced by many people in this country after Trump’s election to the presidency—a trauma that’s the focus of American Horror Story: Cult—is the realization that those rules and rights don’t feel as sacrosanct as we thought they were.
For better and worse, the horror on American Horror Story: Cult is all text and no subtext. Take the title of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which isn’t some abstract nod to our needing to face the fears lurking in the darkness of our lives, but a reference to the blackout that leaves Ally (Sarah Paulson) in a panic. The show isn’t content to simply talk about the red-meat hate speech of the right; it literally hangs it out in the open after Roger (Zack Ward), a bigoted sous-chef, is found affixed to a hook in the Butchery’s kitchen freezer.
After years of trying to conjure up a universal boogeymen with which to tap into the primal fears of Americans, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have landed almost effortlessly on target. “Election Night,” the first episode of American Horror Story: Cult, knows exactly how to trigger us; in fact, that’s the modus operandi of the show’s central antagonist, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters). This anarchist’s most terrifying moment isn’t when he rubs blended orange Cheetos all over his face in a send-up of Glenn Beck’s mocking of Donald Trump, or the thought of him donning a three-faced clown mask to terrorize his fellow Americans, but when he calmly walks into a local city council meeting, clad in a suit, to suggest that government allow fear to reign. “Haven’t you been watching what’s been going on in the world?” he asks.